Fungi aren't something stapled to the front of people’s minds. They aren't something we think about on a daily basis. We don’t even know how to pronounce the word. They're an afterthought, as are mushrooms. For most people, they’re an add-on. They’re good with other things, parts of a whole, not standalone products. Louie Schwartzberg has different ideas, though.
Fantastic Fungi, which is narrated by the critically beloved Brie Larson and who I’m sure will bring in an audience by being connected to this film, is a documentary that wastes little time in telling you the importance of fungi and specifically mushrooms. It is 75 minutes of fungi-related talks, facts, and stories. From that description, it sounds like a snoozefest, a documentary your grandparents would watch while you’re eating dinner on the TV trays at their house.
But this documentary is much, much greater than that description. In the first 15 minutes, we are given one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard in documentary: “Mushrooms don’t give a shit.” We are introduced to Paul Stamets, the lead researcher and storyteller outside of Larson. He fell backwards into fungal research through a spiritual experience with magic mushrooms. He gives light to the fact that this field of study is driven by amateurs, driven by those without experience. Schwartzberg is looking to inspire non-fungi lovers, and due to the snappy nature of the doc, he will be successful in this attempt.
It’s a film filled with time lapses. It certainly holds the record for time lapses in a single documentary. Each one is so beautiful that it doesn’t matter, though. We see fungi break down organisms and grow new plants. Nature at its finest.
Schwartzberg explores the power of fungi within medicine, within spirituality, within drugs in the latter half of the 20th century, all with speed and precision. He picks interesting subjects to interview: great speakers with different stories and a true passion for the world of mushrooms. It’s difficult to not be convinced by the end of the film, regardless of how preachy the last 20 minutes turns out to be.
“Communities survive better than individuals,” says Stamets as the final time lapses fill the screen. According to Schwartzberg and many others throughout the film, fungi have the power to save the environment, help thousands of people, and recapture this world from whatever dark path we’re currently sprinting down.
Fantastic Fungi is a film that is rife with hope and joy. The director is allowing himself to be consumed by this fungal flood of heartwarming stories, fascinating characters, and unknown world living beneath our feet. It’s a documentary done with care and a sense of pride, and the visuals are often spectacular.
These 75 minutes made fungi not just interesting, but legitimately cool. It made me want to be a fungi fan, adding mushrooms to each and every meal in my diet. These mushrooms really are fantastic. Here’s hoping that these organisms are our saving grace because by God, we need it.
Fantastic Fungi will open theatrically in New York on October 11th and in LA on October 25th.